New Christmas tradition in Mexico

Christmas parade is one of several Mennonite projects bringing together the peoples of northern Mexico to grapple with pervasive crime that affects them all

Dec 23, 2019 by and

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Mennonites in Mexico are promoting a bright new Christmas tradition — one born of somber origins.

The “Parade of Lights,” a nighttime procession of decorated vehicles and holiday party that took place on Dec. 7, was created by the Mennonite Museum in the northern state of Chihuahua to give local people — both Mennonite and Mexican alike — a safe, family-friendly way to celebrate Christmas amid growing violence.

A truck decorated for the Parade of Lights on Dec. 7 in Chihuahua, Mexico. — Museo y Centro Comercial Menonita

A truck decorated for the Parade of Lights on Dec. 7 in Chihuahua, Mexico. — Museo y Centro Comercial Menonita

Drug cartels often battle for control over Chihuahua, which lies along the U.S. border. In 2010, the deadliest year on record, the state had 6,421 murders. Crime then dropped for several years but is now rising sharply. Between 2014 and 2018, murders in Chihuahua increased 70 percent, from 1,758 in 2014 to nearly 3,000 in 2018.

Living in rather closed Christian communities, as Mennonites have for a century in Mexico, cannot entirely protect them from chronic and sometimes random violence. In 2012, the wife of a Mennonite pastor in Chihuahua was killed while traveling to a funeral. In 2017, three local men were shot in the Mennonite colony where they lived.

The Parade of Lights was created in 2017 in hopes of nurturing Chihuahua’s holiday spirit despite perceptions of danger.

City of three cultures

This year, organizers say, about 4,000 people gathered to watch the main event: a parade of cars and trucks decorated with snowmen, presents, reindeer and nativity scenes. The procession starts in the city of Cuauhtémoc, drives slowly down a normally busy highway and ends at the Mennonite Museum eight miles away.

Former museum director Antonio Loewen created the holiday parade as a way to lift up local villages, counteracting views that the area is cartel-ridden and dangerous.

The museum opened in 2001 in the countryside outside Cuauhtémoc — home to the largest grouping of Mennonite villages in Mexico — to teach people about the Mennonite faith and culture. Cuauhtémoc is sometimes called the “city of three cultures” because of its Mennonite, northern Mexican and indigenous populations.

Popcorn and tamales

The Mennonite Museum and Cultural Center, funded by the Chihuahua state government, sees the Parade of Lights as part of its mission of outreach to the community.

The first year the event was held, 3,000 people attended — vastly exceeding the 400 guests Loewen said the museum expected. A few local businesses and churches decorated cars to drive in the parade.

Word has spread since then.

This year, dozens of local families, churches and companies — including Quesería Dos Lagunas, one of the companies that makes the cheese Mennonites are famous for in Mexico — created floats with nativity scenes and decked out their vehicles for the parade. Afterward, Mennonites and families from Cuauhtémoc gathered at the museum for popcorn and tamales — a traditional Christmas food in Mexico — joined by the Cuauhtémoc mayor.

Helmut Reimer, general manager of the Microtel Inn & Suites, a local hotel that helped organize the festivities, said he hoped the parade would reverse the image people have of “insecurity and ugly things” in Chihuahua.

Last year the state had three times the number of murders as neighboring Sonora state, which has a similar population.

The Christmas parade is the latest of several local Mennonite projects aimed at bringing together the peoples of northern Mexico to grapple with pervasive crime that disproportionately affects them all.

Because they traverse religious and ethnic borders, such efforts represent more than just a reaction to violence. They confirm that while Mennonites may dress, talk or pray differently than their neighbors, they are part of Chihuahua’s local community, too.

Rebecca Janzen is assistant professor of Spanish and comparative literature at the University of South Carolina. The Conversation (theconversation.com) offers informed commentary and debate on issues affecting our world.


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